Before 2020, many people had never heard the term derecho. Pronounced “der-AY-cho,” one of these mega storms ripped through dozens of Iowa communities in August 2020. It left the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) churches and schools in ruins.
“It’s one of those events in life that just kind of sears in your mind,” said Rev. Andy Wright, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Keystone, Iowa. Keystone, Iowa, when the derecho struck. In 2022, Wright became senior pastor of St. John Ev. Lutheran Church, Topeka, Kan.
Three years later, the memory of the event is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it.
All of a sudden
Wright and his wife were huddled with their family in the basement as the derecho approached the parsonage at St. John. They knew there would be damage —but how much?
“It ended up probably being about 20 or 30 minutes,” Wright said. “I went up to check the damage and I noticed in our living room that we didn’t have any broken windows, but yet there was water just coming right into our living room that had just gone through the windows. So, I opened up the back door to the parsonage and that’s when my mouth dropped open.”
The damage was unimaginable.
Meanwhile, 13 miles east in Newhall, the teachers and principal at Central Lutheran School were preparing to finally welcome students back into the classroom after a long pandemic hiatus had kept them from gathering in-person. The storm was approaching.
“We had a few teachers here that were getting classrooms ready,” said Principal Frank Parris. “There seemed to be more of an excitement of getting the school year ready for in person.”
Parris left the school to briefly visit his mother who lived nearby when his son called, urging him to turn around and go back home.
“By the time I was most of the way back, the wind had picked up,” said Parris. “I got back to my house, which is 50 to 100 yards away from the school, and the electricity had gone off. Limbs were flying, leaves were flying. The tree in my front yard had been pushed over by the wind and I was panicking because I knew there were teachers over at the school. One of the teachers called me and I could tell she was scared saying [there was] a strong gas odor.”
The teachers had been gathered together, waiting out the storm, when they smelled the gas leak. They moved around the building to find fresh air coming in from cracks around doors and finding windows to open.
Parris, who was trapped in his truck due to the force of the wind, was fielding calls from the alarm company and knew there was a problem at the school. The roof of the gym had been ripped off with part of it landing in the second-grade classroom and a neighbor’s house.
“It was really a scary time,” recalled Pam Williamson, teacher at Central Lutheran School. “Lots of prayers at that time asking God for our safety and the safety of the people that we loved that we weren’t with and didn’t know what their experience was. I had no idea at the time that there would be hardly a corner of the building untouched by this.”
When the storm seemed to pass, the teachers were able to get a glimpse of the damage.
“I looked out the front door and it was like Armageddon outside,” said Williamson. “The trees were bent in half. There was a big beam in the middle of the parking lot I remember. And the wind was just howling.”
The sun wasn’t yet out, but God’s promise to work good even through all of this suffering was already underway.
Love for the neighbor
Within hours, the Iowans’ love for their neighbors became evident. The community started to rally together, helping those most in need even when they themselves had much to do at their own houses.
Neighbors were helping neighbors clear and pick up debris, checking on each other. One can’t help but ask—why all the kindness?
“Christ loves them and they love one another and they help,” Wright said. “It’s just part of who they are. As a baptized child of God, my neighbor, his house is destroyed, I’m going over to help. That’s what they do. And so that was wonderful to see in the initial aftermath.”
The one needful thing
Wright and the people of St. John in Keystone kept their eyes fixed on Christ, remembering that while they cared for their community, they needed to gather around Christ’s gifts to sustain and encourage them. “We knew we needed to hear God’s Word, we needed to receive His gifts,” said Wright. “That’s the big priority.”
The congregation’s president and other leadership decided it would be fitting to have a service outside, right next to the church. They spread the word, hooked up a generator, wheeled out hymnals and watched as people brought lawn chairs and prepared for the service.
“I will always remember that service,” recalled Wright. “I had one member who in particular had a lot of damage, but he said, ‘Pastor, I could have been doing 50 other things that morning and I have plenty of other things to do. But I needed to be at church.’”
The members of St. John Lutheran gathered on a hot, August, Sunday morning next to their damaged church building to hear Christ’s message of salvation.
“That was a wonderful thing,” Wright said. “And to pray and to support one another and to be the body of Christ and that’s who we are. As we looked at the church and didn’t know what was going to happen next, we knew we were going to be all right because the Lord is the Lord of the Church and He’s redeemed us by His blood.”
Members of St. John have gathered around God’s Word and Sacraments for 125 years. They weren’t going to let the derecho stop them from continuing to praise God, and a neighboring community’s church stepped in to help.
Rev. Dave Lingard, pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Van Horne, Iowa, and Wright had been friends for many years. Lingard was quick to invite the church in Keystone to come and join them in Van Horne.
“Paul exhorts us in Galatians that let’s do good to everyone, but especially those of the household of faith,” said Lingard. “And we take that exhortation very seriously. We had some shingle damage, a couple windows broken and trees down, of course. But compared to Keystone our damage was minor.”
The people of St. John would spend a year and a half with the people in Van Horne, and it turned out to be a wildly positive experience for both churches.
“God was really good and he watched over all of us and it was a great experience to get to come together,” said Lingard. “It was wonderful to hear the voices. When the saints from St. John Keystone came and added to the choir and to the singing, it was just marvelous to hear.”
Getting by (with a little help from LCEF)
Having assessed the damage and triaged the work, the people of St. John in Keystone and Central Lutheran in Newhall were ready to rebuild. It wasn’t always easy.
At Central Lutheran School, the students had to be split up into three places in order to start the school year.
For both the church in Keystone and the school in Newhall, they weren’t about to abandon their mission because of the derecho. Thankfully, Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) didn’t abandon their mission either, the mission to help churches and schools to thrive—no matter the challenges or circumstances.
“Two days or so after this all happened … in walks Carole White, our LCEF [district vice president], and she has cookies and snacks, and she says, ‘Whatever you guys need, just give me a call.’” recalled Wright.
Wright and his congregation set to work, with White’s help, on some options for funding the church’s repairs.
“This way,” said Wright, “it wouldn’t be too much of a burden on us, that we know that we can get what needs to be done and not have to worry about it. And we also can use an organization that we can trust, that we know is going to actually want us to succeed because it’s for the sake of Christ and his Church, that there’s that brotherhood. Lutheran Church Extension Fund was going to be there to help ease that burden as much as they could. And Carole really made that clear to us, that LCEF was always right there alongside of us anytime we needed them.”
Moving in, moving forward
A year and a half after St. John in Keystone held that outdoor service in the summer heat following the derecho, it was finally time to move back into their reconstructed sanctuary before Christmas of 2021.
“Now we can finally move forward and say, ‘Let’s put this behind us,’” said Wright. “But you know that the Lord has actually made us stronger through it.”
In Newhall, Parris said, they were able to return to their building in February 2021, and it was so good to finally be back after the long stretch of pandemic and derecho.
It means everything
It was a community effort — as sister LCMS churches, as well as neighbors, came together — and God indeed worked good through a difficult situation.
Two years later, Wright was standing in the sanctuary. “It does look a little bit different, but it’s still St. John Lutheran Church,” he said. “And I’ve told the people of God many times before: Christ is our head. We look back now and at times when there was so much that was unknown, Christ was faithful through all of it. We still have the same Lord who will see us through whatever the future may face. We know our future is in his hands, and that means everything.”